On a research trip to Germany in 1995, I heard from U-boat veteran Georg Högel that an Admiral Hans Rösing was living in Kiel. I had been searching for German World War II submarine veterans for a couple of years and thought the admiral would be worth interviewing, so I decided to contact him. At the time, he was 89 years old, and I was concerned he might not be amenable to being questioned by an unknown female American author.
But the admiral enthusiastically accepted my proposal to visit him and record his wartime story. On 21 March 1995, I knocked at the door of his two-story house in a Kiel suburb and was greeted by the elderly Rösing and his wife, who ushered me into their living room. No sooner had we sat down than the admiral brought out a big scrapbook filled with photographs, so many that they encompassed most of his naval career—which was extensive. As Rösing turned each page, he reminisced about his days before and during the war, including his time as commander of U-boats West in France.
Hans-Rudolf Rösing joined the Reichsmarine in 1924, and several years later, after various training courses, attained the rank of leutnant zur See (ensign). In 1930 he was promoted to oberleutnant zur See (lieutenant, junior grade). At that time, he explained, “we were not allowed submarines, of course,” referring to a provision of the Treaty of Versailles. “So the Germans designed submarines” for other countries. The first two were constructed in the Netherlands for Turkey, and then a trio of German-designed subs were built in Finland. To clandestinely gain experience in submarines, Reichsmarine personnel were detached to foreign navies. “I was sent with some other officers to Finland as part of the crew of one of the three submarines.” To get there, the officers used civilian passports with their real names and were classified as technicians, but their goal was to train in the submarines. In three months they managed to carry out shakedown cruises in the new boats.1
In 1932, following his stay in Finland, Rösing and a few other Reichsmarine submariners were sent to Cádiz, Spain, where a German-designed boat had been built. The young sailors were introduced as “experienced submarine crewmen.” Rösing recalled, “Of course . . . we had to lie back then.” Once more back in Germany, Rösing was sent to the newly established Submarine Defense School at Kiel, so named because regular sub training schools were prohibited. “I was one of the teachers, since I had my experience in Finland and Spain, so [instruction] started with a prototype of the small submarines, the 250-ton boats. Many young officers were sent over to Finland . . . to train on this type U-boat.”
Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 and two years later repudiated the Versailles Treaty. Within months the Third Reich negotiated a naval treaty with Britain that permitted Germany to openly build, within limits, and man its own U-boats, and a week later the Reichsmarine was renamed the Kriegsmarine (War Navy).
By then, the service secretly had built six Type IIA 250-ton boats in German shipyards. They were 131 feet long and 13 feet wide, had an underwater speed of 6.9 knots, and carried a single 2-cm antiaircraft gun.2 The boats “had a white, or whitish-gray tower because white towers were not as visible in the night as a dark one. In the haze of the Baltic and North Sea we tested it.” In 1935 Rösing took command of his first U-boat, the slightly larger Type IIB U-11, and about two years later skippered the ocean-going Type VIIA boat U-35.
In 1937 the young officer was assigned to the Torpedo Testing Command, located at Eckenförder, on the Baltic Sea. Development of German torpedoes began at the testing center, and Rösing critiqued the weapons from the viewpoint of the user. One problem was that variations in the earth’s magnetic fields affected magnetic pistols, which triggered the torpedoes’ fuses. “It is interesting,” remembered Rösing, “that after the war we learned that the Americans were experiencing exactly the same thing as the Germans.” If the pistol wasn’t correctly set to the geographic magnetic zone in which the torpedo attack was taking place, “it either didn’t work at all, or it worked too quickly [prematurely detonating the torpedo], so we had to go back to the impact fuse,” which was designed to go off when the torpedo hit a ship. “If it hit directly, it tore a hole in the ship and she remained afloat; sometimes, if you could, you used several torpedoes until you scuttled her.” The problem would last until September 1943, when U-boats began to use acoustic torpedoes, which followed a noise source such as a ship’s propeller.
Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, and eight months later German naval forces captured the British submarine Seal, a minelayer. The boat had hit an underwater mine in the Kattegat, between Denmark and Sweden, and was trapped at a steep angle on the ocean floor. After the crew had tried everything possible to raise the Seal and were about to suffocate, she at last made it to the surface. The submarine was severely damaged, but her skipper, Lieutenant Commander Rupert Lonsdale, discovered she could travel in reverse. While making her way for neutral Sweden the Seal came under attack by German seaplanes. With his submarine unable to dive, Lonsdale was forced to take the white tablecloth from the officers’ mess and raise it in surrender.
Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commander) Rösing was flown out to examine the sub. “It was a fine ship,” he declared, “but ours were better. Our technical things were better than the British, and they were not as interested in World War I submarines like we were.” The subchaser JU-128 towed the captured sub, listing to port and still flying the white tablecloth, to Frederikshavn, Denmark. After the worst damage was repaired, her periscope was decorated with the British battle ensign at the bottom, white tablecloth in the center, and German battle ensign on top, and the Seal was hauled to the Krupp Shipyard at Kiel.
Hitler was ecstatic over the capture, and the Brits were humiliated—it was their first warship seized since the War of 1812. When the Seal was again seaworthy, the German navy attempted to put her into service against Britain. But German torpedoes did not fit the Seal’s torpedo tubes, so she was used as a training boat.3
On 21 May 1940, Rösing was given command of U-48, a Type VIIB boat whose “Cat Times 3” emblem was a menacing black cat with an arched back over “3X.” Reinhard “Teddy” Suhren was his first officer; Otto Ites, the second officer; and Erich Zürn, the chief engineer. Rösing completed two war patrols as leader of a sub group called “Rösing’s Wolfpack,” and U-48 was extremely successful under his command, sinking 12 ships of more than 60,000 tons. For his accomplishments, Rösing received the Iron Cross SecondClass, Iron Cross First Class, and Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. The last signified extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership. His three top officers went on to receive Knight’s Crosses, and Suhren and Ites became U-boat commanders.4
After his second patrol, in September, Rösing was assigned to the Befehlshaber der U-Boote (Commander of the Submarines, or BdU) staff in Lorient, France. There, in accordance with orders from Germany’s U-boat fleet commander, Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral) Karl Dönitz, construction had begun on the huge Keroman Submarine Base. But until work progressed enough to house the boats, they made do with makeshift accommodations. Construction crews hauled up the sunken hulk of the Isère, an old prison ship that had once transported convicts to Devil’s Island, French Guiana. She now served as a pontoon where the subs could tie up. Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant) Reinhard Hardegen’s U-123 was one of the first to use it.5
In December Rösing was appointed Dönitz’s liaison officer to the Italian submarine force at Bordeaux, where he and his officers lived on a French passenger ship. “There were about 30 boats at their base, headed by Admiral [Angelo] Parona, who was an excellent man, and we became good friends with the Italian officers,” Rösing recalled. “It was extremely difficult to work with them because they had been trained differently and had different communications. The Italian submarines were not very good for the North Atlantic; they were made for the Mediterranean, and they had heavy losses.”
After six or seven months as liaison officer, Rösing took command of the Third U-Flotilla, based at La Rochelle, France, and in July 1942 he was promoted to Führer der Unterseeboote West (FdU West), commander-in-chief of all U-boats based in France—most of Germany’s submarines. FdU West headquarters was in Paris. Rösing also served on the staff of Dönitz, whose headquarters was at the attractive Chateau de Pignerolles near Angers, between Paris and Lorient. There, he and his officers (frequently including Rösing) resided and worked until January 1943, when Dönitz was promoted to commander-in-chief of the German navy and transferred to Berlin. About the same time, FdU West moved to the Chateau de Pignerolles.
One month after Rösing had taken over as head of U-boats West, the arrival of a Japanese submarine, I-30, at the large German submarine base at Lorient created great excitement and led to festive celebrations. “The boat carried Japanese officers for the Japanese embassy in Germany and brought goods like tin and rubber and other things which were scarce in Germany.” She would depart France with “German goods like medicines, technical equipment, and so on.” On 5 August, German surface ships had escorted I-30 into Lorient, where her officers and crew were transferred to the deck of U-67 and greeted by Dönitz and Grossadmiral (Grand Admiral) Erich Raeder. Once ashore, the Japanese sailors mingled with German sailors and exchanged cap bands and small gifts.6
I-30 stayed in Lorient until 22 August, during which time local German naval officers were allowed to inspect the boat and she was repaired, painted “U-boat gray,” and fitted with a quad 40-mm antiaircraft gun. The submarine’s officers and crew, meanwhile, traveled to Berlin and Paris. They also visited U-boat headquarters at the Chateau de Pignerolles, where the Japanese and German sub crews participated in organized activities that included all kinds of sports and games.
“With the Japanese, something funny happened,” Rösing said. “We thought the Japanese were fond of tea, and . . . rice, too. But tea was very difficult to find, and of course, as good boys, we did it, but they didn’t like it very much and kept asking for coffee.” Later, Rösing found out that Japanese tea was different—green instead of the black served in Germany. “But nobody told us beforehand.”7
One of Rösing’s chief duties as FdU West was interviewing submarine commanders soon after they returned from war patrols. Two days after the captains arrived at French U-boat bunkers, they traveled to Angers and met with Rösing, who would already have received and read their war diaries. “It was not my job to criticize them; that was Dönitz’s job. I would sometimes say, ‘I don’t quite understand what you did there,’ and so on, then reported that to Dönitz so he could ask about that special case.” Rösing always took notice of each commander’s state of mind and health, and “sometimes I recommended that one be taken out, as he seemed unable to go on another mission—he needed to recuperate.
“My staff then wrote a brief report and sent it to Berlin, to Dönitz. Most of the captains went on to Berlin to meet with Dönitz, to report to him. He relied on his personal impressions of people and was able to see what the situation had been, and he understood them; therefore, he could talk with them.” The admiral could elicit a great deal about the commanders’ experiences by sympathizing and listening intently. “He took a personal interest in them.”
When asked if he liked Dönitz as an individual, Rösing replied: “Yes, oh yes. He was an overwhelming person. Yes, yes, yes! He always asked a lot from his subordinates, but he understood them, and he was able to lead them.” When Dönitz had served as a lieutenant commander in the small training cruiser Nymphe in 1928, Rösing was an ensign on board the ship. “That was the first time I met him. He was respected by all, and later in submarines, he was able to lead the U-boat crews. His men stood by him, and that was the reason why our submarine warfare was able to continue for so long.”
After mid-1943, the odds were against U-boats returning safely from patrols. But they were ordered to continue fighting to the death. In 1944 their assignment for the Allies’ forthcoming cross-Channel invasion was to ram enemy ships. Luckily for the U-boats, Hitler did not know the exact date or location of the landings, and the submarines were spared that horror. In the fall of that year, the Allies liberated France, and remaining U-boats were sent to bases in German-occupied Norway; Rösing remained FdU West.
To improve the Third Reich’s odds at sea, German engineers developed a revolutionary submarine, the type XXI, with a Schnorkel air intake and huge battery, which enabled the boat to primarily operate underwater. Then the innovative, much smaller Type XXIII went into production. “We sent some of them from Norway to the British east coast,” Rösing recalled. “They operated there, and there were no losses. For the British it was difficult to know whether a hit had been [from] a torpedo or a mine, because they couldn’t find the submarines. They were too silent, too small; they made no noise at all.” When the war ended, “A British cruiser with [an] escort came over from England to Norway to negotiate with us about conditions and so on.” A British officer “met with Commander Adalbert Schnee of U-2511, a Type XXI, who knew he was not allowed to scuttle it. He would have sunk it if it had been allowed.”
“I left the war as captain, kapit¯an zur See,” said Rösing. In May 1945, British occupation forces transferred him to a prisoner-of-war camp in Norway, where he was held for about a year. Back in Germany at the end of 1946, the former naval officer supervised a construction project near Lübeck, then assisted the U.S. Naval Historical Division in Bremerhaven. “There was one officer from the Secret Service who was interested in certain questions and problems during the war. So I had to work for them on Arctic operations of submarines during the war. You know that German submarines went into the Bering Sea, and this, of course, was very interesting to the Americans.” Rösing was with the Historical Division for about six months.
Beginning in 1952, Rösing worked for the “Blank Office,” the predecessor of the West German Ministry of Defense, and four years later joined West Germany’s postwar navy, the Bundesmarine, and commanded naval operations in the North Sea. Promoted to rear admiral, upper half, in 1962, he retired in 1965. The next year West Germany honored the admiral’s service by presenting him with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit.
Keeping busy in retirement, Rösing served as president of the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers from 1966 to 1968. He was also a member of the German High Seas Sports Association, a sailing organization. The night before his group was to participate in an international sailing regatta in Norway, it attended a formal dinner hosted by one of the country’s ministers. Also in attendance was Norway’s monarch. “When we Germans came in, we were very formal, and I was introduced to King Olav,” Rösing recalled. He was shocked when the king shook his hand, as he had been expecting a cold reception. Following the royal handshake, King Olav, who stuttered a bit, said to Rösing, “Good luck for the race.”
Rösing knew that the ministers and king were well aware that he had been a U-boat commander in Trondheim, Norway, during the war and was amazed that they had treated him so cordially. “For several years after that, Norwegian officers talked about how astonishing it was that the king had shaken the hand of a German officer.” As for the admiral, “I felt that something had happened. I didn’t know quite exactly what. . . . I shot to the bar and had a double whiskey. It was very exciting.”
1. Interview with Hans-Rudolf Rösing, Kiel, Germany, 21 March 1995. (This and all subsequent quotations from Admiral Rösing are taken from author’s interview with him).
2. Eberhard Rössler, The U-boat: The Evolution and Technical History of German Submarines (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 334.
3. Melanie Wiggins, Fatal Ascent: HMS Seal, 1940 (Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount Limited, 2006), 47, 48.
4. Jürgen Rohwer, Axis Submarine Successes 1939–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), 19, 20, 25, 26. Georg Högel, Embleme Wappen Malings: Deutscher U-Boote 1939–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 45.
5. Michael Gannon, Operation Drumbeat: The Dramatic True Story of Germany’s First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 3.
6. Melanie Wiggins, U-Boat Adventures: Firsthand Accounts from World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 57–59.
7. Bundesarchiv Koblenz in Koblenz, Germany, has a large collection of photographs of the arrival and activities of I-30, as well as other U-boat photos.